It’s hard to hear bad news in the red earth of Northwest Queensland. It is rich in copper, lead, and zinc and supports only snappy grass, turpentine, and buffelgrass.
In February 1990, I was crying on the red dirt. As a coltish 20-year-old boy, I was surrounded by the residue from an exploratory mine camp: accommodation blocks, humming air conditioners, tricked-out Jeeps, and somewhere, my boss wearing his favorite T-shirt, showing a man crouching, with the caption “I’m happy I could spit.” Yvonne was a geologist a couple of years older than I, on whom I had a crush. Another geologist, a tall and rangy man in his 30s, wandered by. He asked me what was going on. When I did not reply, Yvonne said I had just heard that my father died in Scotland, half a globe away. The man thought for a moment and then replied: “Don’t be afraid; death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.”
Mining may not be emotionally matured after three and a half years, but it is certainly more slick. In September 2023, I will be in Brisbane and about to return to the scene. At the age of 52, I became a father. I thought about my relationship with him. Brisbane airport looks like a dystopian film set where Schwarzenegger goes to mine Andromeda. Passengers march around in red overalls with their names on them, and the Tannoy thank us for following airport rules.
Airbuses are used to reach the pithead. After three hours, we descend through a scarred landscape. The owner of the rental company gave us a Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with bullbars, numeral decals, and a yellow roof light. He says, “We don’t have many recreational customers.” I drive 75 miles from Cloncurry past the Mary Kathleen uranium mining site that gave Britain’s nuclear weapons its zing. After 30 miles, I pull into the Quamby – a “pub in scrub.” It’s almost unchanged despite being closed for over a decade. It’s a barn with a corrugated roof, a mural depicting a sleeping roustabout, and lots of cold beer. When I told him that I used to work nearby in the 90s and was passing by, the rancher said: “Aw yeah?” Did they tie the pig to the porch back then?
I had the idea to return from Queensland a few years before, during Guy Fawkes Night 2021. In Havana, Cuba, where I live now, I was looking at my son’s face in the Gonzalez Coro Hospital. He’s the first small face I have ever seen in my life. But those features… His all-but-closed eyes were filled with gunk, but mine ran clear. The hospital had kicked me out, COVID protocol, so I retreated into a garden nearby, La Reserva. It had been transformed into a speakeasy when the pandemic hit. I drank rum that night and thought of many things, but the scene in the Australian Desert kept coming to mind. “What was I even doing?” I asked myself.
In the months to follow, I asked myself the same question as I walked up and down the streets at night with the boy in my arms. He will never forget, and neither will I, the time we spent gazing down on Havana’s poorly lit streets where night fishermen were rolling their rafts from the seafront. My synapses were rewiring as a result of having a baby. Memory slippages that were previously slipping away behind me began to return.
My father was not a weeper. In the Australian desert, I heard the news that he had died ten months earlier. It was Scotland, on the family farm located in the mountains near Sutherland. We were in his office after I returned from London.
In the front room was my mother, lying in a coffin atop trestles. My father was standing behind his desk. The window behind him looked out onto a bank of rhododendrons and a gloomy sky. He began to cry in a way that was not familiar to him. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him, “She is in a much better place.” Then he looked at me and said: “She is not in a more better place Ruaridh. She’s the other room.”
The blame was placed on Chornobyl. But he had been a smoker. His pipe tapping on the road while he leaned out of his truck to clean it is a sound I remember from my childhood. My mother has been fighting lymphoma for eight years. My father’s cancer diagnosis was the final blow to her.
My father told me that he would buy me an airline ticket to travel around the world after her funeral. I had not made their last few years easy. I was sent to a beautiful school in Perthshire Hills that turned into a walled-off tornado of bullying. Even now, I can still feel the misery: the school was razed. The ground had been plowed. I was also not liked by the school authorities. At 16, my parents told me it would be best for me to leave.
I went back to the Highlands and got into trouble with the police. My father purchased an old Skoda car for PS250, and when I turned 17, he granted me my wish to take it to London. He said that he worried I would die in less than a week.
I made it, even if my diet consisted of Guinness and Haagen Dazs. Two years later, I asked him why he believed I should travel the world. He replied: “You saw your mother die; I don’t wish to see you die too.” I returned home for one last visit after working my notice in London. He drove me to Inverness station, where we exchanged a handshake on the concourse. He said, “Don’t return.” He was referring to his funeral.
So, here I am, in Australia, many years later. The morning sun is warming me as I lean on the bonnet. I have pulled over along a dusty path that leads to a distant ridge, hoping to conjure the past and see myself just as I was before I heard the news of his death.
Finches are frolicking in the trees while cattle fidget grumpily. In February 1990, it was so hot the dogs refused to get out of their truck. I didn’t have a choice, as I was Yvonne’s assistant, and I had to dig where she pointed.
I got the job through a friend of a close friend who was a helicopter pilot for the company. I drove a Jeep until Yvonne instructed me to stop. She would then reach down, grab a pebble, and use her geologist’s pick to crack it open before licking the surface. It was sexy.
I was trying to move out of my childhood and create something new to impress Yvonne. Then came the message saying that my brother had been trying to contact me. It wasn’t unexpected. I knew I would never again see my father when I boarded the train in Inverness.
My younger self disappears as the cows are not happy to see me. They shift grumpily and don’t seem to like that I am here. I get into the Land Cruiser again and continue driving. I reach Mount Roseby Station after the scrub has given way to a park with beautiful horses. Harold Macmillan is the rancher under a gum tree stuffed with cockatoos. I tell him that it’s a funny retirement to have after Downing Street. He replies, “Not many people do that anymore.”
The McMillans had a sprawling ranch. Harold and Cathie offer me tea at their low-slung house. They recall the miners. Harold recalls that Ian Whitcher was a very friendly consultant geologist. He would walk the land and map it. He would come back to Cathie every August and bring a handful of gold out of the bush. He was a bloody, tough Welshman. “They had to scalped him for a malignant melanoma but I believe it was the final blow.”
I like Harold & Cathie. Their feeling undercuts their stoicism. They would have been selected by my mother, who admired their work ethic and sense of family. When my mother died, she left a letter wishing her kids the same luck she had in love. Harold tells me about the landscape. He gives me names and tells me that the buffelgrass arrived with the old Afghan camel train, allowing cattle ranching.
He says, “There is more grass this year than usual due to the heavy rains.” “But this means that the fires are going to be horrible.”
The McMillans are not haughty, but they have a lot of heirs. Cathie’s nine children have produced 23 grandchildren. The McMillans, their children, and various stations in Queensland and Northern Territory run 100,000 cattle.
The farm we had in Scotland was completely different. Peaty streams cut the heather and pine, and there were patches of hard-won grass. It was tough and isolated. My siblings and I sold the house after our parents passed away. The dream they had bought in the year I was conceived. We loved it, too. The only thing to distract you were books, as the hills were just too high for TV.
My father’s airline ticket taught me something magic: I could leave the humiliation of my schooldays behind and go to places where nobody knew me. The discomfort in my skin began to disappear as I started traveling. Moving on was a kind of pathology. If I became too close to someone, I would say, “I love, but I must go and live overseas.” I would come up with an excuse, sometimes a real job. After a few weeks, I would be going in the opposite direction. I became accustomed to the baffled looks.
I found that I could reinvent myself as the person I wanted to be and stay ahead of those who might call me out. After several embarrassing experiences, I learned not to take reinvention too far and to stay true to myself even when the past became more blurry. It turns out that if you run, you will eventually meet someone whom you do not want to be running from. One day, I’ll explain to my son where babies are born.
A spectacular sunrise greets me as I drive to the old mining camp. What was once a narrow track has now become a two-lane road that ends at a gatehouse. The workers of a large zinc mine were bussed in and out. I park near the bridge that crosses the Dugald River. A mother emu is guiding her chicks across the bed of dry soil below. In Havana, it’s tea time, so I called home to show this scene to my son. Santiago’s face is covered with black beans and white rice. “Papa!” He shouts, and the emus flies off.
I climb down into the riverbed to try and point out the willie-wagtails hiding in the eucalyptus. But he cannot see. He becomes bored and leaves. I look around. There is no profundity here. No bush ignites before me. All I can think of is the question, “What was my purpose here?” I remember my father buying that ticket and saying goodbye to me in the gray of Inverness station. He sent away his son, who was idiotic, drifting, and barely capable, that he no longer could protect. It was his final attempt to ignite something in his son before he became engulfed by darkness.
It is so still that there is no wind in the trees. Then, it dawned on me that I was now half a globe away from my son, even though I was half a planet away from my dad. And I wonder: “What’m I doing here?”